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Balancing Unusual and Formula

17 Oct

So getting ready for @nanowrimo in three weeks means that I need to get my story idea ready. Although I’m usually a “pantser,” after my last story, I realized I really need to plan out where I’m going with my next story. So welcome to the world of mystery templates.

Because I realized my sci-fi story was turning into a mystery, I figured I needed a mystery template. So I found the “Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula” which will give me the structure I need to plan out my story. The first chapter made me realize that “Oh, just shooting the victim doesn’t really help.” Although most of my story was planned to be the chase of the villain, not as much the search, I realized that I need to set up clues for the hero to identify the villain later.

So moving onto Chapter 2 shifted my perceptions on where to start my story. Don’t start it on the frontier planet, with the hero brooding over the victim’s death – actually SHOW the murder, show the world that the hero comes from, show WHY the hero cares. I know – this sounds obvious, but I’ve always found that the hero(s) need to have backstory, which means to me, “Why should I start from the beginning?” I’m always a fan of getting to where the action is, not the build-up. But in mystery, the build-up is ALSO the action.

Then Chapter 3 tells me to start a sub-plot; check, already had that planned. However, I’m not to the frontier planet that I want the reader to go to. So I’m realizing I need a sidekick for my hero as a way to explain to the author how we get from urban planet to frontier planet. It also allows me to develop the hero and start to get to the nitty gritty of what makes this character–and their universe–really cool.

So I need to figure out Act II – direct the investigation towards a conclusion which later proves to be erroneous. My original plan was to make everyone on this frontier planet a suspect, since a) there’s less people and b) why would someone move to a hell planet when you live in virtual paradise? So everyone there is trying to hide from something. Think Alaska. 🙂

This where I’m currently stuck, because this means I need to flush out the folks who live on hell frontier planet. Act III, where the sleuth figures out he’s on the wrong track… that’s going to be easier once I figure out the other suspects.

What do you think? Am I on the right track with this formula? Do you like templates? Do you despise them? Let me know in the comments below!

Unclaimed Territories

16 Oct

While I’m planning for my next story project, I’m realizing that this story is really more of a mystery than just the outlandish sci-fi that I’m used to. So to plan this monster (and make sure I don’t repeat the mistakes of my last book), I have to use a mystery novel template. However, I’m facing a completely different set of rules, and it makes me a little nervous.

It reminds of the term “unclaimed territories,” which sounds more obscure than “undiscovered country” or “unknown lands.” In Maine, most of the thick mountainous, forested land is referred to as the “Unclaimed Territories,” due to the fact that under the (now repealed) Homestead Act of 1862, this land was so difficult to use that no one claimed their allotment… or few stayed on to keep it in their family. So instead of creating vast swaths of national parks (like they did here in Arizona), they just call it “public land” and do the same thing they do here – the state gets to permit logging companies to harvest trees on a cyclical basis.

So how do I claim the territory of “sci-fi mystery?” When researching this, I actually found “Frank Gruber’s Foolproof Formula” first, written by an author of the pulp era, and then I found the 12 chapter template. So let me focus on the tricks first. Well, you need a crime. Check – that’s the motivation for the hero. However, Frank pointed out that to keep the reader’s interest, it has to be unusual. This is an ongoing point – anyone can write murder on the train, but the “why” and “only your sleuth can solve it” is the important part.

So this really inspired me – Gruber goes on to make the point that the hero AND the villain need to be larger than life. They need to be colorful and powerful to keep the reader interested. So that made me realize that I should reframe my characters to touch on that. I’m already creating an ultra-tech universe in which people can be larger than life (and frequently are), why not expand on that?

It’s the term “unusual” that really attracted me. I’m not a big fan of mystery, so for me to pick it up, it HAS to be unusual. Sherlock Holmes is a high-functioning sociopath who gets into drugs when he’s bored. Cadfael is a herbalist monk in 12-century England. I’ve read other historical mystery before because I like the setting – I’m crap at figuring out the mystery. So I’m seriously adapting my story idea to embrace the unusual… which with ultra-tech, isn’t going to be hard.

I’ll get into the 12-chapter mystery plot structure next post, but what do you think? Should I embrace the “unusual” in my book structure? Was my last book TOO unusual for you? Let me know in the comments below!

Leafblowers in the Mist

15 Oct

I wake really *#@$&$* early. My job has a lot of East Coast clients, so living in Arizona means I have to start work two hours earlier than most office jobs to match. So I open my window… and am welcomed by the droning sounds of lawnmowers and leafblowers. Can you find zen in the modern annoyances?

You would think this would be a weekly problem (my complex mows our lawn on Wednesday), but in my case, it’s daily. I live next to a golf course (public – I’m not in a gated community) so they have to get that grass to a razor sheen with their Mower After GOD! ™ and drive around the 20-acre plot with that beast before the slightly less insane retirees get to the course to start their tee time.

This sound – even when not near my townhouse – is a constant drone for a good hour and a half right as I’m starting my day. During the summer, this is less of a concern, because in Arizona we can’t open our windows at 5 am because it’s still 90 degrees then. However, fresh air is a wonderful thing, and in September it was finally cool enough to open the windows for the first couple hours of the day.

Now that I have the setup, can I get in the contemplative mood to enjoy my morning work routine with the leafblowers going? Yes. It’s a simple issue of mind over matter; “if you don’t mind, it’s doesn’t matter!” 🙂

Okay, it’s a bad joke, but it’s true. When I practiced meditation, I went to the multi-faith chapel at the hospital I worked at, because it was the perfect quiet space. Only one problem – they were doing construction on the floor above. So every minute, you’d get some grinding sound. Did I give up and go back to lunch? No. I started to use the grinding sound as my meditative focus and it worked great. Since I expected – now needed – the sound, it was welcome and allowed me to focus better.

Of course it’s not like I have a choice. If it wasn’t the leafblowers, it’s the cars on the highway-pretending-to-be-an-interstate 2 miles away, which you can hear all the traffic on a clear day. Or someone will have a traffic accident within a three mile radius and you’ll hear all the emergency vehicles. So embrace your modern distractions… because honestly, you don’t have much of a choice. 😀

Am I off track here? Have you embraced the distractions to find peace? Or have you found more effective ways to block out the noise? Let me know in the comments below!

Bad Husband, Good Father?

12 Oct

I seem to live my life in commercials (compared to my son who lives life in musical numbers), because I keep picking up nuggets of confusion and blogging about them. So in today’s online therapy, here’s the fun phrase I overheard: “Bad husband, good father.” Really?

At first blush, this is perfectly understandable. As the son of divorced parents, there is a huge difference between a father who’s there for you versus a father who’s not. To quote another commercial, “Your kids don’t need the perfect parent, they need you.” Simply being there makes a HUGE difference. My dad was in the Navy, so he physically couldn’t be there, but he tried as best as he could through letters, but there was a big difference. So I have a lot of appreciation to those divorced dads who stay in the same area, make sure to take the kids half the time, continue to be a parent even though they’re no longer married to their mom. To the kid, their relationship to your mom is less important. At first…

However, parenting is just another relationship, just like marriage – there are different needs with adults than with kids. So naturally, a relationship with your spouse is exponentially more difficult, because your needs are different and often harder to fulfill. If the kids wants junk food, and you refuse to give it to them, sure you’re got a tantrum for a few minutes and then life goes on. If your wife wants you to stop X, and you don’t want to stop X, this will continue on and on for… weeks? Months? Years? That lingering “tantrum” will poison your relationship for a long, long time.

That poisoned relationship will affect your kids, whether you like it or not. I certainly remember the day my parents divorced – it was done remotely, again because my dad was in the Navy – but it made an impact on my life. That anger can make things difficult for everyone in the family. Even when you stop that behavior, or start doing something to mend the relationship, it’s hard to forget that anger. For the one trying to change, when that anger is still directed at you… what’s the incentive to keep with the change?

Man, that was vague! I guess what I’m trying to say is that… yes, you can be a good father but a bad husband, but it’s preferable to try and be both. I’ve been married 14 years and I find it a wonder that anyone stays together. Relationships are hard work. However, being a good father is… a little easier. It’s still difficult, but it seems to be easier to keep your kids happy than to keep your wife happy.

Then again, my kids are only becoming teenagers now – I’m sure that as they become young adults, they’ll get more of those adult complexities, and they’ll hate me half the time too. Then they’ll become parents and they’ll forgive me, just like I forgave my father, because it’s only once you’re in their situation that you understand what your parents went through.

What do you think? Is there a happy medium you can make between all your family members? Or do you find relationships with children harder? Let me know in the comments below!

I Got a Bubble in my Ear

1 Oct

All this has happened before – and it will all happen again. For the second time in my life, I got a bubble in my earlobe. Really annoying. I know it will go away, but just like an itch, you can’t help but play with it. How the #*$& did it get there?!

After yesterday’s line crossing into controversial, I figured I’d stay on this side of the love today. Also, NOTE: Apologies if I gross you out on this post – I’m trying to use benign terms, but since I’ve worked in multiple Emergency Departments… well, let’s just say Your Mileage May Vary.

The medical term is called an “earlobe cyst,” and although that sounds serious, it’s really not. Apparently the cause is just a malfunctioning system in the skin. Dead skin cells that are supposed to shed for some reason don’t, and just like any foreign body, your skin develops a shell to isolate the skin cells and forms the “bubble.” Then the dead skin cells breakdown and form keratin (yes, the stuff that’s good for your nails), but it’s really pus, and when it releases, it’s rather stinky but not harmful. Eventually it will either be absorbed or released (“popped”), but unless it’s huge (and it’s not), it’s not a noticeable or even slight problem.

But darn, is it weird! On the positive side, it gives my fingers something to fiddle with that won’t cause any harm. Thankfully, I’ve grown out of my excessive teenage skin oil phase, so I don’t have pimples to pop (or at least, not very often, and usually on my nose). Plus, I got rid of that ingrown hair on my chin, so I can’t fiddle with that. So in some ways, it’s a blessing, because I have something to touch that it’s bad for me.

The negative side is I’ve basically got a pimple on my earlobe that I can’t get rid of. If I wanted to get rid of it, I suppose I could heat a pin and jab it, but as much as I consider myself pretty tough when it comes to pain, I don’t seek it out either. So I just have to wait it out.

For a blog post, this is not the most exciting thing I could be typing about, but it does give you an insight into my random thoughts. However, I know I’m not alone. How many people out there have had that very same problem? Have you had a similar but equally annoying problem? Let me know in the comments below! Don’t worry about grossing me out – like I said, I’ve worked in multiple ED’s (as tech support, not as a medical professional), so I can handle it!

If Only You Could Send Me…

24 Sep

So someone tried to scam on Twitter. They claimed to be a poor boy whose mom was sick and him and his two sisters had just run out of rice. And your only salvation is a Twitter follower you met yesterday? Yeah, right…

I’m a pretty caring person – homelessness is actually one of the few causes I give a damn about. However, I’m also jaded, and don’t believe things at face value. The guy with the sign on the street in America might be hungry, but he’s not going to use the money you give him to get food. He can raid trash cans for food. He’s gonna use it for whatever is going to make him happy. Drugs, drink… hell, getting a new cell phone. Every homeless man in America has a smartphone. So if I give something to a man with a sign, it’s water or food, not money.

So when I give to the homeless, I give to Family Promise. That’s a great charity that specializes in not only providing shelter and food for homeless families (because most shelters are gender-divided, so sons can’t stay with their mothers), but also provides employment assistance, does interview training, and provides transitional housing to get them off the street. When I’m feeling particularly soft, I give to Phoenix Rescue Mission, St. Mary’s Food Bank, and the Salvation Army… all charities I respect.

Even when I lived in India, there were the homeless that I respected/knew and the ones that I knew were part of a racket. There, people were obviously hungry, but there is a scam where kids are hired/forced/coerced to look cute and bug people for change. However, that money went to their pimp… don’t have a better name for it. Just like pigeons, if you pay one, you suddenly get a swarm of homeless kids that start asking for money, and you have to yell “baas!” (A rude way to say “get away” in Hindi.)

Interestingly enough, this happens electronically too. The reason I even know about the Phoenix Rescue Mission, St. Mary’s Food Bank, and the local Salvation Army is because Family Promise sold my contact information to them. I was rather annoyed by that – damn it, I gave you money – that doesn’t mean I want to be put on the “sucker” list and get swarmed by homeless advocates.

So that’s how I balance compassion with logic. Part of me still worries that I just shut off a starving boy in… Africa? Gambia. West Africa, that’s right. English is a primary language. But if you’ve got money transfer software, you can take your mom’s cart, drag your sisters along, and sell whatever she sells on the streets of Bangui. But that’s what makes the scammer/beggar’s message so insidious. They are trying to appeal to your best nature. But they think you’re suckers. Look at all those silly people going to work and I get to be free and people give me money for nothing. Suckers.

Am I too jaded? Is there a better way to balance compassion with logic? Let me know in the comments below!

I Hate Social Media

23 Sep

Here’s my terrible admission: I hate social media. Yeah, I’m on five different platforms and I kick out a blog post everyday, but I hate it. If I could hire someone to do this for me, I would. So why the %&$* am I still here?

I apologize, this is a continued whiny post from yesterday, but I figured this deserved its own rant. If you continue reading, you have been warned.

So why am I still on social media? Simple–so I can get people to read my words. I mean, that’s the great democratization of the Internet. You want to be heard. That’s what anyone wants, right? When I ran for Congress ten years ago (8% of the vote for a third party) what I learned on the campaign trail is that everyone has an opinion and everyone has an issue. Well, you can join an organization for your issue (Mine? Cigar and pipe smoking rights), but your opinion? Someone needs to listen to you.

This is what sucks about being a political candidate. You have to listen to everyone. Issues you don’t care about, people who can’t edit themselves, folks who ramble on and can’t stay on topic. And since everyone’s vote is the same, you’re going to stand there and take it.

When trying to sell something low cost like… my book, everyone’s purchasing power is roughly the same, so just like on the campaign trail, you have to reach out to as many potential readers as you can. It’s like campaign signs on the corner. No, you’re probably not going to their website, but when it comes time to go to the ballot box, you’re going to think, “Oh, yeah, that name sounds familiar,” and click it.

Sound stupid? Yeah, it is. But it works. Historically, in a “safe” district where one party has held the seat for decades, the candidate can die and still get reelected. That’s how powerful the familiar is.

I feel safe saying this further down the blog, but WordPress is my favorite. People who read blogs are “readers” and hopefully want to read my books. So I spend the most time on it. Twitter is my second favorite, mostly because I’ve muted all the political rants out, and have focused on the #writingcommunity. So I’ve carved out a small pocket of internet peace. Who knew?

Facebook is next and I was ready to leave it before I starting my writing jihad. Now it’s there to just repeat my blog and occasionally find out what my hobby club is doing. Goodreads falls after them. I’m still mad they got rid of Shelfari and I had to absorb that into Goodreads. But… it has readers and I go where the readers are. Finally is LinkedIn. When I was a travelling consultant, this was vital to getting the next job. Now that I’ve had the same job for two years… eh, it’s where I put my online resume. But I get a strange amount of feedback from it, better than Twitter, so I keep at it.

Am I alone? Are you compelled to stay connected even though you’d rather disappear into the woods? Are there some platforms you prefer above others? Let me know in the comments below!

Wait, I Thought I Read That…

22 Sep

I’ve been rereading one of my favorite book series over the weekend and I hit book six. Within a couple chapters, I realized, “Wait! I’ve never read this before!” I was sure I had. In fact, I’ve read the next three books – how did I forget to read this?!

This is an extension of something I’ve just learned is called the Mandela Effect. Apparently, it’s named after the belief held by many people that Nelson Mandela died in prison. In fact, he was released from prison, became the first black president of South Africa, and died long after.

Did you ever watch Moonraker (1979), one of the cheesiest James Bond films of all time? If you grew up in the 80’s, it was shown over and over on broadcast TV, so you couldn’t help but watch it. Anyway, there’s a scene where Jaws, the henchman who will not die, is pulled from the wreckage of his latest attempt to kill Bond by a small blond haired woman. He smiles with his patented metal chompers, she smiles with her braces.

Except she doesn’t. You can see from the picture above that her teeth are perfect. Your mind put the braces in there. You remember reading the Berenstain Bears as a kid? No you didn’t, you read the Berenstein Bears. Unless you grew up in New York City, you weren’t used to people having names ending in “-stein,” so your mind changed them to “-stain.”

So there’s only two answers to this. One, you’re in an alternate dimension (a la Sliders) that’s close to the one you started in. Or two, your memory is faulty. In fact, your memory is not very good at all. When a political candidate… let’s say, embellishes a story, especially a story that can be easily checked from existing footage – they’re not lying. When they originally told the story, they added a detail to make it more exciting. Then when they told the story, that detail was kept in. Then they added another detail. The longer you tell the story, the more you believe it, until finally, your memory puts in the detail that wasn’t there before.

I didn’t read Kushiel’s Mercy because I didn’t own it at the time. The second book ended on a good note so I thought that was the end of that trilogy (forgetting it was only the second book). So when the next trilogy came out, I read that, and there was minimal reference to the previous book because… well, the author set it two hundred years in the future. I wasn’t confused. So I just assumed I read Mercy.

As Petros Papadakis is fond of quoting, “All the world has become a lie, and the lie is the truth.” Of course, I probably got the quote wrong. 🙂 Where have you noticed your memory being wrong? Were you as surprised as I was that Dolly didn’t have braces? Have you read Jacqueline Carey’s steamy series? Let me know in the comments below!

Return on Investment

21 Sep

Well, that’s disappointing. This has been the third month of my social media expansion and although I now have 7800 followers across 5 platforms, my return on investment has been… far lower than I wanted.

Okay, this is going to sound like whining, and… maybe it is. Thankfully, I haven’t spent any money yet (although maybe I should), but I have invested a significant amount of time into Albigensia Press and getting its name out there. How much? It takes me about 20-30 minutes each day to write these blog posts and another 30-60 minutes each day to grow followers. I do this 6 days a week, so let’s just call it an hour a day. So I’ve spent 78 hours of my life building this up.

So I was estimating a 1% return on investment. The hope was that 1% of the people who follow me would actually be willing to buy one of my books. That’s a hideously low number, but considering the miniscule amount of marketing I’ve absorbed over the years, I thought that was significantly conservative.

<whine mode> Turns out I was way over estimating. I’ve sold (drum roll please) exactly 9 books in three months! Are you #*$&@#($ kidding me?! That’s a tenth of a percent! Exponentially smaller. What the #*$& do I have to do?! </whine>

Am I concerned with the money? No. No one becomes a writer (or teacher… and I’m both!) to become rich. The investment I want is for people to actually read my work. Now if you’re reading this (sigh), I guess that counts. After all, this blog does force me to build up my writing ability, and… that’s investment, right? But it’s hard to be hopeful. Especially since this takes a significant amount of time out of my day.

Now here’s the positive spin – nine books is more than I have ever sold than in the last 10 years I started publishing my own books. So I guess if I look at it from investing a significant amount of time, I get a significant increase in readers, then… I’m on the right path. But man, it’s hard to be positive.

Now… am I about to stop? No, because as I explained above, I am making progress. But Lord, I was hoping to make more progress. Are you on the same path as me? Did your grounded expectations turn out to be woefully optimistic? Let me know in the comments below!

You Are Completely Unprepared

20 Sep

My family are lazy preppers; we are keenly aware of how thin a thread we hang by in the modern world. However, when it comes to preparing for the unthinkable, we mostly do a head nod. So… how much do I really care about the apocalypse(s)?

Since the Days of Awe ™ are here, guess it’s time to consider how ready I am when the unthinkable occurs.


So when there’s a spiritual revelation and the end of days, I guess it depends which end times we’re talking about. If it’s the beginning of the Messianic Age ™ then the Messiah will be revealed to everyone. There won’t be any question whether or not this is the Chosen One. Rapture is also a good option, because although I won’t be lifted bodily into heaven, I’ll have plenty of time to repent before Judgement Day. Even in the Mormon faith, I still get to go to the Terrestrial Heaven, so I’ll still have to get missionaries in the limbo zone I find myself in.

The Days of Awe are all about examining yourself and determining whether or not God will write you in the Book of Life for another year. Although I take that seriously, just like Earth Day, there’s a reason it comes only once a year. If you had to consider the infinite all the time, you’d either be preaching on the street corner or in a constant state of fear. Either is not acceptable.

I was talking with a fundamentalist Christian once and I said, “Man, if Christ comes again in glory, I’m really screwed.” To which he answered, “There’s grace enough for all.” I found that rather comforting.

Terrorist Attack on Infrastructure

This is the one that’s the most likely and the most damaging. So much of modern life is dependent on electricity. Internet out would suck, and seriously impact my work, but power? Major problem. As I’ve learned modern life will continue on for at least two weeks without power. But more than that? We step into the Mad Max world.

This is why my wife is currently buying beans like there’s no tomorrow. Beans are great because they provide protein, they last a long time, and very portable. Of course, we aren’t storing water, which is a far greater concern in the desert where I live. So we have enough food to last us for a year… if only we get the #*$& out of the Valley of the Sun.

The Second Civil War

This one I’m the least concerned about. Because even with the inevitable riots after the election, people have to be willing to sacrifice their nice comfortable life to fight for their right to party… sorry, a new government. Sure, our system has flaws, but you want to roll the dice on a new government? You want to give up your social media life to pick up a gun and risk your life on the barricade? Sure, you can talk a good game online, but you want to starve and get shot at for years to bring about your utopia? The numbers of would-be freedom fighters drop considerably.

In Belarus, people who protest know they’re risking their lives. If they get imprisoned, they’re going to be tortured. They’re going to be killed. In the States, they’re going to be imprisoned for 48 hours and then released. You might never show up for the court date. Hell, you might never be charged. It’s easy to protest when there are few consequences.

So I’m not very well prepared for this. I don’t even own a shotgun. I’m more concerned about my kids shooting themselves than defending my own home. I can barricade the doors and take out my swords and see what happens.

I’m sure there’s an apocalypse I’m missing. What have you been doing to prepare for whichever apocalypse you have in mind? Did I miss one? Tell me in the comments below!

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